Across the Jewish world, families are climbing down from their Purim induced sugar highs and recovering from their carb-induced comas, fixated on next month’s festivities: Pesach. Unfortunately, Passover food has a terrible reputation, perhaps fitting given that matzoh is the bread of affliction.

At the best of times, many civilized cultures have let consumption of real food slip away in the name of convenience but slowly there is a realization that this is a short sighted vision. With all the preparation, cleaning, and large communal gatherings, it is easy to look for short cuts to survive the week but the less time we spend in the kitchen cooking real food, the more time we will end up spending of recovering from what we ate in the long run.

It’s not that we don’t know how to cook. Traditional recipes connect us. We remember holidays past and family or friends who might not be with us anymore. Living thousands of miles away from family, we want to cook the food we had last time we spent the holiday together but I wonder if the the modern Pesach diet is conducive to celebrating freedom from years of bondage and slavery.

Even before my wife I and decided to dedicate time and money to learning where our food came from and the long-term effect it has on our family, Pesach was always the healthiest week of my life. Armed with as much fresh produce as the refrigerator can hold you can embrace the restrictions placed upon our diet for seven (or eight) days and use the holiday to your advantage.

Produce is G-d’s gift to mankind. You don’t need to “hide it” in something for your family to eat it. If they’ll eat those dry Pesach cookies or cereals, I am positive they will eat a roasted sweet potato, onion or parsnip. Let me let me share a secret with you: baked goods aren’t supposed to be made out of potato starch!

When we’re forced to clean out the pantries and start fresh I struggle to understand why Passover has become a dreaded week of constipation and weight-gain for so many. If you live near the shuk or an outdoor market you have inspiration on your doorstep, and if you eat kitniyot (legumes) it’s even easier to avoid the temptation of packaged foods.

Fresh Avocado

Photo: Yosef Silver (This American Bite)

If you’re reading this and thinking that all sounds good in theory, but have no idea what to buy, here are some simple ideas for a lighter, perhaps more enjoyable, festive week.

Pesach, also known as chag ha’aviv, the holiday of spring, marks the start of the harvest so stock up on lemons, garlic, zaatar, and sweet potatoes instead of candy, matzoh meal, macaroons and potato starch. 

Lemons add flavor to almost anything. Squeeze them over veggies, slice and bake with fish, or cut them in half and roast with whole heads of garlic and chicken. Garlic is just as versatile in the kitchen, every time you turn on the oven, wrap a head of garlic in foil and drizzle some olive oil and serve it with anything — some people like to eat the garlic whole, others will spread it on their matzoh, potatoes or other root veggies. A little goes a long way. Zaatar is a staple in my kitchen year round, use it as you would salt and pepper on everything from eggs, matzoh brie or roasted veggies. If you end up roasting veggies all week, you can add variety to the dish from how you season them. You can use lemon, garlic or zataar to make your own flavored olive oils too. Sweet potatoes go a long way. Roast them for in big chunks for 45 minutes with a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper and they’ll be perfect. Keep cooking them longer and they will start to caramelize on the outside. Use them in chicken soup, onion soup or orange soup. You’ve got three different meals from one core ingredient right there.

If you rely on a grocery store, stay away from any shelf lined with plastic and spend your money in the produce section. If you eat kitniyot it’s even easier to avoid the temptation of packaged foods by making your own hummus, tahini or split pea soup. When money is tight, see what’s on sale and stock up. Root vegetables like potatoes carrots and turnips don’t go bad all that quickly and they can be used in so many different ways. If the healthier options are the only options in your pantry, you’re much more likely to fix a healthier dinner.

Looking to the seder, turn your egg in salt water into an appetizer with purple pickled eggs or keep your appetizer light with papaya, lime and smoked salmon. Remember that you’re serving dinner late at night, so you can serve smaller portions than usual. Another option; once you’ve written your menu for seder night, pick one dish to cross off the list! I know that this will be painful but I do this almost every Friday night of the year and never has anyone gone hungry at my table.

Fresh fish at the shuk

Photo: Yosef Silver (This American Bite)

Fresh fish is also great to stock up on. Much quicker to cook than chicken or meat, you can wrap it in foil with some fresh dill or parsley, lemon, garlic and black pepper and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Alternatively, put it in a skillet with a tomato sauce. Both of these methods work well for cod, nile perch and salmon alike and can give you a protein to serve alongside some roasted sweet potatoes or coconut roasted butternut.

Pesach is one of my favorite holidays, even with all the cleaning. In fact, when I was living in Israel, I always missed the second seder. In our home, it’s the silverware and skillets that change for pesach more than the food we’re preparing because we try to eat consciously year-round. If you’re looking to move towards better eating, pesach is a great time to take the first baby step.

Food is healing, comforting and has a huge impact on our health, energy and temperament so on a night when everyone is welcome to come and eat, why not make sure they are eating the best?

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